Like so many around the world, I have been interested this week in the selection of the new pope. Pope Francis is now the leader of over 1 billion Catholics around the world. His selection is understandably big news. His religious leadership and influence on the world stage is evident. I am grateful for his strong stands on the sanctity of all human life and for Biblical marriage between a man and a woman for life. I pray that he will continue to stand firm on these issues and lead courageously.
On the other hand, first of all as a born again Christian and Bible preacher and second of all as a Baptist, I do feel it is important to help people understand some very real distinctions. Catholics believe that Peter was the first pope and reference Matthew 16:17-19. I believe Jesus is actually referring to himself in that passage and affirming that the church is built on the rock of salvation – the Lord Jesus Christ. I believe the Bible teaches that no man is the head of the church, but rather the Lord Jesus is the head of the church of the church that he is building…
“but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.” (Ephesians 4:15–16, NKJV)
In addition, I believe the Bible teaches that we do not have a priesthood today because the Lord Jesus Christ is our great High Priest who provided direct access to God through his death on the cross…
“Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14–16, NKJV)
While volumes have been written on these theological issues, let me sum up briefly. Because the Bible teaches that Christ is the head of the church and the great High Priest of every believer, then every sinner can draw near to God for salvation by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus. There is no priestly mediator that must accept your confession, but rather each person confesses their sin directly to God. Therefore, the Lord is directly involved in a real and personal way in the individual life of every Christian. As a result, we look to the Bible and the leadership of the Holy Spirit for our guidance. Individual Christians may worship, pray, confess, and study the Bible based on their own personal relationship with the Lord. This is a fundamentally different understanding of personal salvation and Christian discipleship than what is taught in the Catholic church. These convictions are held by Baptists and many Christians from other denominations and backgrounds. It is important to understand these distinctions.
As a result, Baptists do not elevate and recognize the pope to anywhere near the degree our Catholic friends do. Our King is Jesus. He is the head of the church. The Bible is our authority. We do not have popes; we have pastors who are called by each individual congregation to teach the people, shepherd the people, and lead the people all under the authority of the Great Shepherd – the Lord Jesus Christ. The pastor is not the ruler of the church, and he is certainly not infallible. That is why the pastor is to lead the people in a way that allows the Lord to work in their hearts and bring them to the same conclusions and directions. As a result, when the Baptists vote on a matter we believe this reflects God’s will as He has spoken to the individual members of the church. This is called congregational church government, another Baptist distinctive. Each Baptist congregation is free to call its own pastor and make its own decisions as it feels led by the Holy Spirit.
As a result, there is no Baptist Vatican either. While there is a Southern Baptist Convention headquarters in Nashville, it has no authority over any church. It exists to carry out the cooperative missions and education efforts of over 40,000 Southern Baptist churches. Participation is completely voluntary. No church is required to give a single dime. No pastor is ever told what he must preach. No church is ever told what they must do. Churches choose to be part of the cooperative Southern Baptist family. They can choose to no longer cooperate at any time. This is why one person described the Cooperative Program as a “rope of sand.”
The same holds true on a state and local level. The church I serve is also a member of the Alabama Baptist State Convention and the Madison Baptist Association. The same principles hold true in those relationships. Whitesburg Baptist Church is not instructed by or bound to either of these organizations. Whitesburg Baptist Church owns our buildings, calls our own leaders, and makes our own decisions as we feel led by the Lord. We are glad and busy participants in the Southern Baptist Convention, Alabama Baptist Convention, and the Madison Baptist Association, but this is because our church chooses to be and we feel the Lord wants us to cooperate with other like minded believers. Neither of these groups has any authority over our church. In fact, the true headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention is the local church!
In light of the new pope being chosen, I thought it appropriate to remind all of my readers about these important distinctives.